By | August 13, 2014

Recent research finds that Congress is more polarized than at any time since the end of reconstruction. These findings are evidenced by the Shriver Center’s recently published Poverty Scorecard, which graded 97% of the Senators and 95% of the Representatives at one extreme or the other. This polarization has led to partisan gridlock in Congress, which is especially detrimental to poor people, who have the most to lose under the status quo. Given these realities, what can be done to ensure access to justice and opportunity for all? Perhaps a more useful question is how can we work with, rather than against, this ideological divide in order to achieve political wins for our clients?

Using Moral Psychology to Understand the Roots of the Ideological Divide
As a first step it is important to understand the roots of the ideological and political divide. Jonathan Haidt, a moral/social psychologist, sheds much light on this in his recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, as well as in his earlier articles. Haidt explains that the first rule of moral psychology is “feelings come first and tilt the mental playing field on which reasons and arguments compete.” This is why, more often than not, no number of good facts can turn political tides—our gut reaction dictates the facts and arguments we use to then rationalize that gut reaction.

The second rule of moral psychology, according to Haidt, is that “moral domains vary across cultures.” Haidt argues that his extensive research shows that morality has six major foundations, which different cultures emphasize or deemphasize to varying degrees. It turns out that Democrats utilize only three of the moral foundations, while Republicans utilize all six (granted to varying degrees). Morality is not just about caring for the vulnerable, liberty from oppression, and achieving fairness (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together through loyalty, supporting essential institutions through authoritative frameworks, and living in a sanctified and noble way (all six of which guide Republican ideology). Haidt challenges Democrats to appeal to the broad spectrum of moral foundations when campaigning and framing as a way to achieve wider buy-in.

Haidt’s final rule of moral psychology, is that “morality binds and blinds”—we are not sensitive to threats to other people’s moral systems, and they are not sensitive to threats to ours. However, if we make an effort to understand the threats to the opposite party’s moral system, there may be room for partnership. For example, Democrats and Republicans may be able to come together by acknowledging that one way to lay the foundation for healthier family partnerships (conservative goal rooted in authoritative institutions) is by improving educational outcomes for all Americans (liberal goal rooted in freedom from oppression and fairness).

Reframing as a Tool for Social Change
Haidt’s emphasis on looking to cognitive science and moral psychology to understand political ideology aligns nicely with Bill Kennedy’s 2010 Clearinghouse Review article on effective political messaging for social-change, Framing in Race Conscious Anti-Poverty Advocacy. Like Haidt, Kennedy explains that cognitive science dictates that the common ways people think about issues that affect our clients (poverty, homelessness, race, etc.) is not through facts, but through existing frames. Frames are sets of unconscious, internalized concepts and values that are “mapped into our brains by experience” and which help us to assign meaning to information and events.

Kennedy suggests, therefore, that as advocates we can and should use reframing techniques to achieve better outcomes for our clients. With reframing, we can “signal an appropriate shared value system that gives our audience permission to reach the conclusion we want them to reach.” Many of the reframing suggestions for racial justice in Kennedy’s article incorporate the moral foundations that Haidt critiques Democrats for underutilizing. For instance, “we are all one nation of shared fates” (group loyalty), and “fix the system to get fair outcomes” (fairness means proportional outcomes for the work you do).

Kennedy’s quick advice on good messaging for reframing includes:

  • Lead with solutions so the problem seems fixable.
  • Lead with values to activate a frame.
  • Never lead with facts.
  • Control the “we.” Define clients in a way that bolsters public identification with them, not in a way that reinforces “otherness” (i.e. don’t use "the poor," "vulnerable," "marginalized"; try "hard-working Americans" or "working class").
  • Do not argue against your opponent’s frame; reassert your own.

It is unclear when or how the rise of political polarization, and thus gridlock, will begin to dip in the direction that leads to better outcomes for our clients. In the meantime, advances in cognitive science and social psychology have improved our understanding of the origins of this divide. As anti-poverty advocates, we cannot afford to forgo the well-established tools of messaging and reframing to achieve shifts in attitudes toward our clients, and bring them into the “we.”  


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